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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Revelations on EVs, Palm Oil, and Indigenous Land in Indonesia

Article by: Rob Ambat and Sophia Fatima

This article was written by two 2024 Rohatyn Global Fellows as part of a collaboration with the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College

Rural Land in Indonesia

Many rural plots of land in Indonesia are inhabited by Indigenous groups, where customary law known as hukum adat prevails. It stipulates that certain territories operate under an ethnic group’s unwritten customs and traditional laws, which must be respected by the national government. However, oftentimes Indigenous groups find it difficult to protect their rights over customary land vis-à-vis conflicting national governmental projects or companies’ demands.

Conflict over Laws and Rights

Fighting for sovereignty and rights over their customary land is worth doing for women like Anatasia Manong. She explains, “The Awyu Tribes highly depend on what nature supports for them […] We are going to lose our forests when the company starts operating.” Although the Awyu tribe is the owner of customary land, they were not notified when the palm oil company PT Indo Asiana Lestari (PT IAL) started operating within their land. When a group of activists and students rallied together to campaign for the traditional land rights of the Awyu people in Merauke, Papua, police shut down the action, eliciting criticism of the police department of Merauke.


Land acquisitions like the above are possible through the National Strategic Projects (NSP), proposed and implemented by President Joko Widodo. The primary goal of the NSP is to accelerate infrastructure delivery and the issuance of relevant regulation as its regulatory law. There are 245 planned NSPs, with 37 designated as top priority projects for reportedly having significantly high economic impacts, as well as 2 programs on the electricity and airplane industry. While they are seen as a key pillar to Indonesia’s national growth, multiple disputes demonstrate how NSPs may fall short of considering Indigenous peoples’’ rights and traditional ownership of the land.

Palm Oil Plantations

Indonesian researchers estimate that about 9.79 million hectares of old-growth forests were lost to palm oil plantations from 2000 to 2019, representing 11% of Indonesia’s forest land. Deforestation has not only displaced local wildlife by destroying the habitat of local species, but has also substantially contributed to global greenhouse gas emission. Tania Li and Pujo Semedi argue in their book “Plantation Life” that palm oil plantations create an exploitative regime similar to that of Indonesia’s colonial era. According to them, a village turns into an agricultural estate, with all economic activity in the nearby vicinity revolving around the palm oil plantation. In a second stage, economic dependence revolving around the plantation becomes an issue as the villagers’ livelihoods become impossible without the corporation.

Electric Cars

Next to agricultural land, a pressing topic for Indigenous communities is the value of their land for minerals exploitation. While electric cars have been hailed as an environmentally sustainable solution compared to fossil fuels, the mining required for rare earth metals and other minerals needed for batteries comes at a great cost. The land of the Hongana Manyawa people, who have remained relatively isolated on Halmahera island, is being increasingly cleared to satiate a booming market for electric vehicle batteries. On October 26th, 2023, rights group Survival International published a video of Hongana Manyawa tribe members impeding the entry of heavy equipment into the Aki Sangaji River. Several major companies, most notably Tesla, continuously invest in expanding nickel mining ventures across the island and increasing battery production in Indonesia. Tesla alone has invested $5 billion into the mining projects. According to the Conflict Minerals Report submitted by Tesla to the SEC for 2021, “For all raw material extraction and processing used in Tesla products, we expect our mining industry suppliers to engage with legitimate representatives of Indigenous communities and include the right to free and informed consent in their operations.” Questions are thereby raised on the accountability of multinational corporations over their supply chains, especially in the case of extractive economies that pose threats to the country’s natural environment. 

Legal and Economic Dimensions

From an economic perspective, the industries prioritized by the NSPs contribute substantially to Indonesian exports. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil with about USD$23.7 billion in exports in 2021 alone, representing 11% of the country’s national export value. To accommodate the plantations, land acquisitions and evictions are a persistent political challenge in Indonesia. The International Land Coalition reports that there have been 170 large-scale land acquisitions in Indonesia, with around 81% of the deals recording conflicts. Existing frameworks for Indigenous land do exist, but they offer weak protection. Firstly, the government, specifically under the Jokowi presidency, redefined what constitutes a public interest in its execution of infrastructure development projects. For example, land use policies implicitly exclude Indigenous communities from the notion of the “public” to justify their displacement as nationally advantageous. Additionally, although the Rancangan Undang-Undang (RUU) Masyarakat Adat (Draft Law on Indigenous Communities) serves as the legal basis for the protection of Indigenous groups, this law has not been passed. A recently passed law, Undang-Undang Cipta Kerja (The Job Creation Law) was passed in 2020 to ease investment in Indonesia, allowing companies to more easily exploit natural resources. Indigenous groups were scarcely involved in the law’s development yet most natural resources sought by companies are found in their customary land. The same law also urges to quicken the pace of the NSPs. 

Key Takeaways

Indonesia’s National Strategic Projects (NSP) are examples of where the official governmental strategy centers on its role in enhancing economic development. NSPs have precipitated numerous instances of land encroachment, violations, and the involuntary displacement of Indigenous communities throughout the country, accompanied by an upsurge in the influence of multinational corporations. Meanwhile, electric carmakers endeavor to position themselves as pioneers of environmental consciousness. But scrutinizing the supply chains of that and other industries can reveal a disconcerting reality of exploitative and environmentally destructive activities.


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